Wilma den Hartigh
A group of researchers at South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have become the first in Africa to make a breakthrough in biomedical stem cell technology, making it possible to find cures to some of the continent's most significant diseases.
The CSIR's gene expression and biophysics group, headed by Dr Musa Mhlanga, have generated the first induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) in Africa.
These cells are artificial, non-embryonic and iPSC technology makes it possible to transform adult cells, such as those found in the skin, into stem cells.
As part of the research, Dr Janine Scholefield, one of the key researchers involved in generating iPSCs, recently demonstrated – using recorded video footage of rhythmically beating cells through a microscope in the laboratory - just how remarkable these cells are.
In the video, the beating pattern is easily recognisable as heart muscle cells, but these cells did not come from a heart. They were transformed into heart cells from those taken from adult skin.
This is the basis of iPSC technology: Early stem cells can be programmed to become any type of adult cell such as skin, heart, brain and blood cells.
The CSIR simulated techniques devised by Japanese scientists in 2006 and 2007, that showed how an adult cell, such as a skin cell, could be induced it to become a stem cell.
"This was a remarkable piece of scientific research," says Scholefield.
Part of the novelty of this technology lies in the fact that stem cells can be made from almost any individual with just about any disease, by simply taking a skin sample from that person.
Benefits for Africa
The capacity to grow such stem cells in South Africa is a major breakthrough for medical science as it is changing the way in which researchers are able to investigate, understand and find cures for diseases.
"With iPSC technology established in South Africa, we can study diseases relevant to Africa," says Scholefield.
The development of iPSC technology also creates new possibilities for international investment in this particular research field.
Says Scholefield: "South Africa and Africa have the most diverse and oldest genetic population, which means that we should study health, development and disease in our specific genetic backgrounds more vigorously."
The research team hopes that pharmaceutical companies would come on board to perform drug screening with African-derived samples, focused on diseases that affect people who live in Africa.
According to Mhlanga, it is important to ensure that such medical advances are used in the developing world to find solutions to Africa's high disease burden.
Important for regenerative medicine
The medical possibilities of iPSCs are far reaching. Scientists can grow new tissue that can restore sight by replacing defective tissue in the eye; transplant new heart muscle cells into people with heart disease and give people with anaemia new healthy blood cells. It is also possible to treat disorders such as Parkinson's disease.
"Our genetics play a tremendous part in our susceptibility to disease, both in terms of inherited and acquired diseases," Scholefield explains.
Mutations in genes make some people more susceptible to Parkinson's disease than others. Some people are also more vulnerable to infectious diseases such as Tuberculosis.
"If we could study their cells, with a full complement of their genetic background in those cells in the laboratory, we'd potentially be able to uncover clues as to why they are able to hold off disease," she says.
Another way to utilise the technology is to create what is known as 'disease in a dish' models. This technique allows for testing of possible cures, or understanding a disease, without having to subject a patient to invasive surgery or untested trial medication.
South Africa is one of few countries that can use iPSC technology. The ability to grow stem cells is considered a complex skill that is only used by a handful of institutions in Japan, the United States, Europe and Australia.
Scholefield explains that using the technology requires expertise in a number of different techniques that have to be performed perfectly.
"To give you an idea of the difficulty, if you started with 100 000 skin cells, on average, only one of those will become a stem cell," she says.
"One needs to identify the shape change in skin cells, which requires weeks of patience and careful technique to identify the stem cells that arise."
In South Africa, only one other group headed by professors Susan Kidson and Jacquie Greenberg at the University of Cape Town is attempting to establish iPSC technology from human cells.
Another benefit of using iPSCs is that they bypass the ethical controversy surrounding classical stem cells, which must be taken from embryos.
As iPSCs are generated from adult skin, they bypass the ethical issues of embryonic stem cells (ESCs), while retaining most of ESCs abilities," says Scholefield.
"The only ethical consideration here is in the informed consent of the person donating the skin cells."